Monthly Archives: May 2014

Using the Bible to Talk about the Death Penalty

The past two weeks have generated a heightened discussion of the death penalty in America, largely as the result of the execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on April 29.  Plenty of others have written about that event and about the death penalty in general.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who devastates me with everything he writes, established the moral framework for the discussion here :

Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote “Why Christians Should Support the Death Penalty” here:

Shane Claiborne responded to Mohler, observing among other things that in a 1200 word essay, Mohler never mentioned Jesus:

Rachel Held Evans responded with a more direct attack on the “myth of redemptive violence” here:

Anthony Santoro, using the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev two weeks before the Lockett execution, proved one need not appeal to any one specific religious tradition to make a thoroughly convincing moral case against the death penalty.

I am happy to see Claiborne and Evans entering the discussion because it means large numbers of young adults will be thinking and talking about the death penalty in America, and I can hope they will do better with it than my generation has.  I want to take up one specific question here, prompted by their essays, regarding the use of the Bible in the discussion.  Can we use the Bible to talk the death penalty without creating a Hebrew Bible/Old Testament vs. New Testament dichotomy?

Christians who use the Bible to support use of the death penalty tend to quote passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, in part because it is so easy.  Genesis 9:6 and Exodus 21:12-17 could hardly be more clear, and they do not merely make the death penalty an option, but a legal and moral obligation.  This is where the Old Testament argument of death penalty supporters like Mohler falls apart.  If we are to follow such texts then the death penalty should not be “rightly and rarely applied.”  It should be common and frequent.

Christians who oppose the death penalty will tend to go to the teachings of Jesus like the “Antitheses” of the Sermon on the Mount, again, because it is so easy. Matthew 5:35-48 could not be more clear.  There is a reason why in the oft-cited, recent Barna poll only 5% of American Christians believe Jesus would support the death penalty.  They have read that text and they know Jesus himself became the object of the death penalty.

It is only a little more difficult to find texts in the Hebrew Scriptures to use in opposition to the death penalty.  In Genesis 4, God chose a punishment other than death for Cain, the first murderer.  The three greatest heroes in Israelite tradition were subject to the death penalty, but dodged it.  One could easily argue that Jacob’s deception of his father fell into the category of dishonoring for which the law prescribed death, and if Esau had succeeded in carrying out the death sentence he proclaimed in Genesis 27:41 there would have been no Israel.  If Pharaoh had succeeded in his attempt to use the death penalty on Moses in Exodus 2:15, then the Israelites might have had no deliverer.  When David was found guilty of murder, no human authority considered executing him, though God chose to execute his infant son instead in 2 Samuel 12:15.  There is a profound ambivalence about sin, guilt, and punishment at the core of the Torah in Exodus 34:6-7:

The LORD, the LORD,a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in        steadfast love and faithfulness,keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,    forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting  the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and  fourth generation.

Who could read such a divine statement and be sure about anything? There is no other single text to which subsequent writers of the Hebrew Scriptures return more diligently to wrestle with its implications.  The prophets pull it apart, quoting portions of it as they struggle to understand the fate of Israel and Judah.  When Ezekiel dives into the depths of this debate, he emerges with a word from God in 18:32: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone.”

Jesus did not begin the struggle to interpret and reinterpret the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures on sin, guilt, and punishment.  He stands in midstream, along with many of his contemporaries, the rabbis quoted in the Mishnah, who engaged in the same debate and said similar things.    We avoid the Old Testament vs. New Testament dichotomy by honoring Jesus enough to put him in his context.


The Character named Ezekiel as a Reflection of Israel’s Story

I am preparing to write a journal article on Ezekiel, a book that presents interesting problems and possibilities for integrating historical and literary approaches.  Of the four prophetic scrolls Ezekiel may be the most self-consciously unified as a literary work.  The most visible aspect of the literary cohesion is the Merkabah (divine chariot) vision, which describes Ezekiel’s visualization of YHWH’s glory in chapters 1, 10, and 43.  The divine glory departs the condemned temple in Jerusalem (10:18), appears to Ezekiel among the exiles in Babylon (1:1), and returns to inhabit a new temple (43:2).  Ezekiel also contains many chronological notices, most of which appear in order.

1:1/1:2                  30th year, 4th month, 5th day, and 5th year of the exile of Jehoichin, 4th month, 5th day

8:1                          6th year,6th  month, 5th day (of the exile of Jehoicahin)

20:1                        7th year 5th month, 10th day

24:1                        9th year, 10th month, 10th day

26:1                        11th year, ? month, 1st day

29:1                        10th year, 10th month, 12th day

29:17                     27th year, 1st month, 1st day

30:20                     11th year, 1st month, 7th day

31:1                        11th year, 3rd month, 7th day

32:1                        12th year, 12th month, 1st day

32:17                     12th year, 1st month, 15th day

33:21                     12th year, 10th month, 5th day

40:1                        25th year, 1st(?) month, 10th day

Features like these led many interpreters of the 20th century to conclude that Ezekiel had very little composition history.  They argued the book was written in something close its present form all at one time, perhaps by Ezekiel himself during the early years of the exilic period.

More recent views of Ezekiel have moved away from that model toward one that describes a complex history of composition and allows the book of Ezekiel to participate in the difficult theological negotiations of the Restoration/Persian period.  Among the most important issues the book of Ezekiel negotiates are the tension between inherited guilt and individual responsibility (Ezekiel 18) and the delineation between the righteous and the wicked (33:10-20).  The aftermath of national defeat and shared personal trauma demand reexamination of easy assumptions about these issues in the Restoration period.

Paying attention to the book of Ezekiel as a set of traditions originating in the last days of the Judean monarchy, and arriving at its current status as a cohesive literary work in the Persian period requires a synthetic approach to the book.  The feature best equipped to help us keep our interpretive questions connected is the literary character named Ezekiel.  He begins the book grounded in the last days of Jerusalem and the temple of Solomon in the early sixth century, and finishes his role inside a grand vision of a rebuilt temple, wading off into deepening waters in Ezekiel 47.  Between these two points he is often a tortured and tormented figure who embodies the captivity, pain, and grief about which he prophesies.  His life story becomes the renegotiation of sin, punishment, repentance, and redemption the book wants and needs to accomplish.